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On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves) Hardcover – August 9, 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (August 9, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439110239
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439110232
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,404,596 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Ambitious and original. Unlike the vast majority of recent writings about memes, this is a serious book that does "add to the theory". It belongs on the reading list of anybody who hopes to use Richard Dawkins's insight into memes, offering a serious scientific account of cultural change and innovation. That it is entertaining is a bonus, not a substitute for substance.” --Daniel Dennett, New Scientist, Letters

“This book is a delight. Not only has Hughes described the world with meme’s eye vision but he has woven the insights of this view into a funny and endearing travel tale. Anyone interested in memes and the evolution of culture is bound to enjoy it. At last! At last not only has someone seriously adopted a meme’s-eye view of the world but has described the world seen through its lenses with humour, intelligence and real insight. Hughes’ hilarious travels through the American west do for culture what Darwin did for biology. I will buy a copy for both my meme-loving and my meme-hating friends.”—Professor Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine

"Hughes, an award-winning science writer and documentary maker, explores how big ideas begin, evolve, and converge--and whether culture, like biology, follows any Darwinian dictates of natural selection--in this detective story–cum–road trip memoir. Hughes and his brother, Adam, trek across America in their Chrysler in order to trace the evolution of tepees used by the Plains Indians--that "marvel of human ingenuity... the difference between life and death." Along the way, Hughes maps out the genealogies of other cultural artifacts of Americana--the gambrel-roof barn, bourbon whiskey, regional pronunciations and jokes, why Scandinavian immigrants took to the American Midwest, and the invention of the cowboy hat. Taking his cue from Darwin, Hughes intersperses his technical discussions of genetics and biology with sketches--of tepees and such oddities of the animal kingdom as naked mole rats, hammerhead fruit bats, oarfish--and snapshots from the road that keep the reading brisk, personal, and pleasurable. This ambitious book braids together studies in biology, psychology, history, linguistics, geology, and philosophy into an impressively succinct and readable taxonomy of human culture." --Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

"On the Origin of Tepees is not your usual sort of book. Jonnie Hughes, a British TV and radio science guy, is like a carnival barker on serious weed. He is like Carl Sagan without segues, Jacques Cousteau without the hat, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom without the kingdom … Wait, wait, I’ve got it: On the Origin of Tepees reminds me of a mind-blowing book I was given in first grade. It was called Animals Do the Strangest Things, and it called into question pretty much everything I’d been told so far (at 6) vis-À-vis evolution; namely that people were in charge of animals, people were smarter than animals, people were more inventive than animals and, of course, people were funnier and nicer than animals (none of which turned out to be true). Hughes wants us to understand the world differently; to understand the evolution of ideas and how those ideas shape the choices we make (individually and as a species) and our cultural evolution. He has chosen to do this in what he considers a surreal landscape — America. Now don’t get huffy: This is not Baudrillard exclaiming over the American materialist wasteland, or even de Tocqueville marveling in his paternal way over our fabulous optimism; this guy is totally comfortable (maybe too comfortable) with the idea that, grand theories aside, we are not in control of our evolution, any more than the hammerheaded fruit bat, the oarfish, or the naked mole rat. We need new goggles with which to see ourselves and through which to fully appreciate Darwin’s work. Hughes has got some."--Los Angeles Review of Books --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Jonnie Hughes is a science writer and filmmaker with over twelve years experience in communicating science to a broader public on radio, television, in print, and face-to-face. He is an award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker and regular contributor to Geographical Magazine, BBC Wildlife Magazine, The Guardian, and The Times. His films have aired on National Geographic, Discovery, BBC One and Two, and Channel 5. He has won the Association of British Science Writers and the Wellcome Trust Awards for science writing and a BBC Radio One Award for factual radio and the American Genesis Award for Best Popular Television Documentary. He lives in London, England.

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More About the Author

Jonnie Hughes spent his childhood methodically scouring the rock pools of the Devon coast in South West England. Captivated by the miniature wildernesses he discovered, he studied ecology and evolution at the University of Leeds, then moved to London to build a career telling others all about Life, what it is and how it works. He taught about it in college, wrote about it in newspapers and magazines, and made films about it for the BBC, Discovery, and National Geographic Channel. His journalism, radio and television work have all won awards. On the Origin of Tepees is his first book.

Customer Reviews

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Lastly I'll tell you about my favourite bit of the book.
Tim Tyler
This was an excellent book that really made me think deeply about the world around me and how it evolved.
It's an interesting book; Hughes is humorous and is good at breaking concepts down.
Laurie A. Brown

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on October 14, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Framing his big story of cultural evolution as a travel jaunt across the American plains and mountains and northward into Canada, British award-winning science writer and documentary maker Hughes explores how ideas germinate, evolve and reach their pinnacle of perfection -- or at least arrive at "about right."

Looking for the origin and evolution of the various Plains Indians teepees, Hughes, accompanied by his brother Adam, journey from the huge Mall of America to Calgary, ruminating on the geography and history of the land and its inhabitants as he goes, stopping at Indian battle grounds, villages, pow-wows, and museums, looking for that first teepee idea, noting how the grass changes on the prairie and what that meant to the animals that ate it, the people that followed them and the invaders -- like Kentucky bluegrass, that competed for resources.

Various ideas and inventions catch his eye -- the Stetson hat, for instance, or the gambrel roof barn, unique to America. Where did the designs come from, what physical and cultural influences contributed to small, stylistic differences in neighboring barns or styles of Stetson?

Cultures and individual ideas, Hughes reflects, evolve just like organisms do. Well, maybe not just like. We do things that don't appear to benefit our genes in any way such as dying for our country or becoming celibate or "collecting useless things such as stamps." But for the most part "thought inheritance is what we humans ...; are built to do."

Inventions are seldom conjured out of thin air. Tweaks to existing ideas lead to more and better tweaks until, lo, you have the Stetson, a useful item with a design complicated by fashion, identity and status.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Laurie A. Brown VINE VOICE on October 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Science writer Jonnie Hughes sets out on a trip across Middle America and Canada with his brother to explore the evolution of the tepee (how long did it take him to figure out a subject that would sound like `species', I wonder?). Along with the travelogue and his discoveries about the tepee (and cowboy hats and a few other things), he explains to us the theories of evolution and natural selection among living things, and the idea of memes. Not memes as in internet quizzes or cat pictures, but memes as in perpetuated, spreading, ideas. Memes are like genes, but instead of spreading biologically, they spread psychologically. They change through time- parts that don't work get dropped; new things that make the idea better are included. The tepee is a meme; it has changed through time to meet conditions, and has spread to different people.

It's an interesting book; Hughes is humorous and is good at breaking concepts down. That ideas evolve through time and space can't be doubted, but at times Hughes writes about memes as if they are living things that exist independently of human minds, that they have a drive to survive of their own. I found that a bit... odd. Likewise, he writes of genes as if they have an actual wish to survive and so drive evolution purposely. While I'm pretty certain he does this as a writing technique, rather than truly thinking that ideas are living things with a will to live and spread, I found it a bit disturbing.

Despite this one oddity, I really recommend this book. He explains how speciation occurs in both animals and in languages in an extremely clear way; his story of how the cowboy hat evolved to fit the new environment of the west - and how it's now stopped evolving, much as humans have- is wonderful. Hughes has a great future as a writer of science for the layman.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By plum49 on August 25, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This book is great! I have to say, I'm not normally a big fan of sciency books, not because I don't like the subject, but because my brain seems to cloud over and not be able to take anything in. Somehow, this book broke right through the clouds. I loved the humour in it, and the fact that it is not only about cultural evolution but is also a story of a road trip across America. But what I like the most about it is the incredibly clear and enlightening way that Jonnie Hughes explains the concept. I'm now looking at everything just that little bit differently.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Sceptique500 on July 1, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition
Had one asked, 2,500 years ago, how the idea of a Stetson hat, or of a tepee, had arisen, Plato would have answered sternly that the "idea of the Stetson hat" existed from eternity. From the shadows of their grubby lives loving humans would strive to reach out for it. Aristotle would have chuckled, and countered by pointing to a heap of felt: "look, there is a Stetson hat wanting to come out". Scratch the impenetrable academic jargon, and you'll get the same answer from a number of philosophers today.

Or you can do like the author did, and go on a highly entertaining tour of the American Northwest in search of the origins of the hat and the teepee. A few days of experience are worth years of speculation.

It is evident once you look around: both the Stetson hat and the teepee have evolved. Stetson got the credit for mass-producing what existed already. Ever since the cowboy hat has evolved and changed in accordance to experience and fashion. It will continue to do so.

How does cultural evolution work? For clearly the hat is a cultural construct. This is the next question the author asks. The answer requires a roundabout detour through biological evolution.

Darwin famously said that evolution works by chance variation and selection. This mindless process is unsatisfactory to many. According to this theory we don't know where we are going. To add insult to injury, time is the only driver. Some scientists remain uneasy with the idea of time in the driver's seat: it may nod off, or not suffice. Dawkins popularized the idea of the "selfish gene", madly driven to replicate itself, lest it perish in the struggle for survival (please note the upgrade of Aristotle's teleology). Life is by-product.
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